Iraq: Jordan fury over first death in confrontation

As a deal over the United Nations weapons inspectors takes shape between Saddam Hussein and
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The first and so far only person to die as a direct result of the confrontation between Iraq and the US was shot dead in a demonstration in the desert town of Ma'an, south Jordan. He was Mohammed Abdullah al- Kateb, a 22-year-old student, killed by a bullet in the heart as he demonstrated in favour of Iraq near the main mosque in Ma'an on Friday.

His death led to two days of rioting during which townspeople used guns and fought off police to rescue Mr Kateb's body from the local hospital and carry it through the streets. A further 20 people were injured. During a visit, King Hussein said he would not tolerate violence and lamented that the riots should have started ``in Ma'an, which was the town where the Kingdom [of Jordan] was founded''.

By yesterday the army and police had declared a curfew. Bedouin soldiers had parked a truck mounting a heavy machine gun across the main entrance to Ma'an and were letting nobody through. ``We are looking for arms and anybody who took part in the demonstrations,'' said a soldier.

To prevent news of the riots spreading, the government shut the local telephone system. At another checkpoint, police, backed by an armoured car, said they were on the lookout for journalists, either foreign or Jordanian, and were under orders to turn them back. As we spoke, the hand radio of one policeman announced that some journalists had been seen ``talking to the people'' and that this was to be prevented.

Despite the attempt to create a news blackout, the course of the riots in the Jordanian heartland appears clear. On Friday Leith Shubeilat, president of the Jordanian Engineers' Association, a major opposition figure known for his pro-Iraqi sympathies, gave a sermon in the mosque in Ma'an.

Local people say that at a rally attended by about 150 people afterwards, police opened fire with tear gas and the demonstrators responded with stones. As the clashes escalated, police and rioters used guns and Mr Kateb was shot through the heart from behind, according to a doctor who saw his body in the hospital. Nayif Abu Hlaleh, an MP who was leading the rally, told a Jordanian newspaper it was peaceful ``but suddenly the police started throwing tear gas and shooting with live ammunition''.

The riots are serious because they took place among Jordanians in an area traditionally loyal to the Hashemite monarchy and a recruiting ground for the army and police. They are also the type of outburst every Arab ruler fears if there is a second round to the Gulf war. Within hours of the shooting of Mr Kateb the streets of Ma'an looked like a West Bank town during fighting between Israelis and Palestinians.

Tyres were burning and streets were blocked by stones. Young stone-throwers wrapped their head-dresses around their faces to prevent recognition.On Saturday four policemen were hospitalised after a gun battle.

At the same time the relatives of Mr Kateb stormed the hospital where his body had been taken and took it away for burial. When King Hussein arrived later, he said: ``Tribal leaders are not able to control some of the people who carry machine-guns.''

He warned that if there was a US military strike on Iraq, half a million Iraqi refugees might come to Jordan. He said that Israel might also push Palestinians from the West Bank into Jordan. Palestinians in Jordan generally feel too vulnerable to demonstrate. But Jordanians, particularly from the south of the country, have done so several times in the past 10 years.

In 1996 a rise in the price of bread led to severe rioting in Karak, a hill-top town north of Ma'an.

The government's immediate reaction to the riots was to arrest Mr Shubeilat and an unknown number of local people. One man said that many students and teachers had been put in jail, though he admitted that his information was sketchy.

Abdul Salam al Majali, the Prime Minister, said a state of emergency may be imposed. Describing what happened as a ``shameful act'', King Hussein warned of the vulnerability of Jordan, caught as it is between Israel and Iraq.